WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (IPS) - Health activists are appealing to
drug firms and Western governments going to the Nov. 9-13 World
Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Doha, Qatar, to make
life-saving but pricey pharmaceuticals affordable for the
world's poorest countries.
The effort, mounted by the medical aid group Medecins sans
Frontieres (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) and
others, comes as health ministers from developing countries
prepare to assert themselves at the WTO - traditionally the
domain of trade ministers.
It follows earlier actions by some 60 countries African, Latin
American and Asian countries to change the WTO's patent rules
to permit them to make affordable generic copies of expensive
This argument has gained vigour in light of the anthrax scare
in the United States. Washington, traditionally loath to
infringe upon companies' patents and pricing, has compelled the
German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG to cut its price for
Cipro, a brand- name antibiotic that has proven successful in
fighting the potentially lethal bacteria. The United States and
Canada also are moving to stockpile generic equivalents.
"This example shows us how hypocritical the U.S. is," says Asia
Russell, international affairs coordinator with the U.S.-based
Health GAP Coalition. "The U.S. is hypocritical for decrying
the efforts of the developing countries over the same thing
they are now doing."
When Brazil said in August it was breaking an international
patent protecting Nelfanivir, Roche Pharmaceutical's anti-AIDS
drug, in order to protect its citizens, the Bush administration
and U.S. corporate media accused it of violating international
Brasilia said it was authorising the production of a generic
version that would save Brazil's public health agency roughly
40 percent on AIDS medication. MSF spokesperson Ellen't Hoen
says developing countries plan to use the U.S. incident
involving Bayer to defend their positions.
Traditionally, the WTO is the domain of trade ministers.
However, "health ministers from developing countries are gong
to Doha for the first time," Hoen says. "There is an ongoing
debate now. The ball is rolling and nobody will be able to stop
"This is a long-term process," adds James Love of the non-
governmental Consumer Project on Technology. "The movement (for
accessible drugs) is stronger now than ever before."
In a landmark statement issued in March, a group of 60
developing countries said current patent rules should not
"undermine the legitimate right of WTO members to formulate
their own public health policies and implement them."
As a result of developing countries' activism, rich countries
now face a dilemma, says Hoen: ''either allow access to drugs
or increase monopoly positions."
For their part, non-governmental organisations have pledged to
target institutional investors in the pharmaceuticals sector.
Their argument, says Hoen, essentially is that the drug makers
are at risk of losing the ''social contract'' they need to do
business successfully. This is because lack of access to
affordable drugs is a major killer of people in poor countries.
Drug companies, however, say that new drugs cost hundreds of
millions of dollars to develop and can take ten years or longer
to bring to market. At this stage, patent laws prevent a
product from being copies for 20 years - allowing firms to
recoup the costs of research and development and to reinvest
some of the profit in developing new drugs.
In addition, "we have enormous programmes to expand access to
medicine in poor nations," says Mary Ann Rhyne, a U.S.
spokesperson for Glaxo Smith Kline. "We also offer drugs on
discounted prices. This is a balancing act of those who need
access to drugs and those who need cure."
Rhyne says patents provide an incentive to continue research
and development. Glaxo Smith Kline invests more than 150
million dollars per year in HIV research and global public
health programmes, she adds.
To preserve that incentive, major drug makers backed by Western
governments have engaged in costly legal battles with companies
and governments in poor countries, over patent privileges.
In one famous example, dozens of international drug firms took
South Africa to court earlier this year for trying to import
cheaper generic versions of AIDS drugs under international
The firms finally backed down under intense public pressure
overseas and at home. Protesters and public commentators alike
accused their executives of chasing after profit and caring
little for the sick and the poor.
According to Health GAP's Russell, some 8,000 people die of
AIDS for want of medical care in Africa every day.
In South Africa alone, some 4.7 million people live with
HIV/AIDS. They represent half the region's pharmaceutical
market - where 13 out of 15 antiretroviral treatments are
patent protected, according to MSF.
"In fact, half of the people with HIV/AIDS in Africa live in
countries with significant patent barriers on antiretroviral
drugs," several charities said in a joint statement last month.
Armed with World Health Organisation statistics that 11 million
people die every year from preventable diseases, developing
countries' health officials and their allies will seek to push
a raft of demands including but not limited to patents and
pricing at the WTO talks in Doha.